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“Perfect Storm” of Pandemic, Poverty & Jailing Ex-President Unleashes Mass Protest in South Africa

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We go to South Africa, where more than 70 are dead and at least 3,000 people have been arrested since demonstrations erupted after former President Jacob Zuma began his 15-month jail sentence for refusing to testify in a corruption probe. Protesters also expressed frustration with entrenched poverty and inequity as South Africa battles a devastating wave of COVID-19. “This was really a perfect storm that has built up,” says Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political sciences at the University of Pretoria in Johannesburg. “The protests and the unrest has stopped being about former President Zuma and has become more about the socioeconomic conditions that people find themselves in and the problems of hunger.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn to South Africa, where police say the death toll from the ongoing protests and unrest has risen to at least 72. Over 3,000 people have been arrested since demonstrations erupted after former President Jacob Zuma began his 15-month jail sentence for refusing to testify in a corruption probe. Demonstrators expressed frustration with entrenched poverty and inequity as South Africa battles a devastating wave of COVID-19. Looters said they were motivated by financial hardship.

ELIJAH: [translated] It’s not about Zuma or what what. It’s about poverty, my sister, that you cannot dodge. People are hungry. There are no jobs. We cannot dodge.

SIBONGISENI HLONGWANE: [translated] People were running around causing chaos and then saying they have no food, so they’re going to get some. So I also did the same. I stole food. I won’t even lie.

AMY GOODMAN: Now the South African government says it will call up reservists for the first time in decades. The Army is preparing to deploy tens of thousands of soldiers.

For more, we go to Johannesburg, South Africa, to speak with Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Pretoria.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain the origin of this protest and what’s happening now?

SITHEMBILE MBETE: Thank you so much for having me.

The origins of the protest really come from the imprisonment of the former president, Jacob Zuma, on the charge of contempt of court. He basically was instructed by the Constitutional Court to testify between — before the state capture commission, which is investigating charges of state capture and corruption during his term in office. Of course, the irony is that former President Zuma is the one who instituted the commission in the first place and who was instrumental in writing its terms of reference. However, he has refused, since 2019, to appear before the commission, because he has stated that the chair of the commission, the Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, is compromised and should step down. And so, the Constitutional Court, after he refused to appear before the Constitutional Court in varying court cases earlier on this year, they judged him to be in contempt of court and decided to institute a custodial sentence as punishment, so that’s 15 months. And he went into prison last week, Wednesday, Wednesday night.

And on Thursday and Friday, we began to see protests and acts, effectively, of economic sabotage, actually, initially, is what we saw in the main highway between KwaZulu-Natal and Durban, which is the main port in South Africa, and Johannesburg, which is the commercial center. We saw trucks that are traveling between those two cities being torched on Thursday and on Friday, as well as warehouses and other important economic infrastructure being torched.

By the end of Friday and into Saturday, this had spread in KwaZulu-Natal province, which is former President Zuma’s home province, to unrest, to mass unrest, and, effectively, what I would call food riots, as people stormed different malls and big food retail outlets in order to take food from these places. Of course, you also saw more generalized looting, as people were also stealing fridges and television sets and clothes and all of those kinds of items, as well.

And I think that the food riots, we can certainly understand in terms of the deep levels of poverty and vast inequality that South Africa finds itself in. The expanded unemployment rate of the general population is about 46%. The unemployment rate for people under the age of 24 is 74.7% at the moment. So there is very high levels of unemployment. The government had been giving a social grant to people who are unemployed during the COVID-19 lockdown period of 350 rand, which is about $24, but that was discontinued in March. And a vast number of people were reliant on that amount of money, as small as it is, to feed their families every month.

And with the absence of that grant and the decision by the government at the beginning of July to extend COVID-19 lockdown regulations to level 4 and reduce economic activity, this was really a perfect storm that has built up, triggered by, initially, the imprisonment of former President Zuma. But as the people who were speaking in the segment have explained, really the protests and the unrest has stopped being about former President Zuma and has become more about the socioeconomic conditions that people find themselves in and the problems of hunger. And that’s certainly what it is around the looting and the vandalizing of stores.

Of course, what we’ve also seen in recent days in both KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, with Johannesburg, is — but mostly in KwaZulu-Natal, is the destruction of key economic infrastructure. So, water reservoirs, electricity substations, community radio stations in Johannesburg have been attacked, which is leading some to think that there is also a dimension of this that is far more deliberate and a lot more of a political attempt by those who support former President Zuma to undermine or overthrow the administration of the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sithembile, you just talked about the destruction of infrastructure and the way in which this unrest, as you say, has spread. Now, many have said that, in fact, this kind of destruction will, in the end, impact the poor more than anybody else. So, if you could talk about that, and also the extension of this lockdown, South Africa now caught between these two impossible situations — on the one hand, rising numbers of COVID cases, and on the other hand, the devastating effects of the lockdown, where half of South Africa’s population was already below the poverty line — and, as you say, government assistance stopped in March?

SITHEMBILE MBETE: Certainly. So, what we have seen, especially in township areas where people were destroying the retail stores and the malls — and this was really localized, in KwaZulu-Natal and in Gauteng, and even then, not all parts of Gauteng, mostly in Johannesburg. What we’ve seen is people in township destroying the — we’ve seen the destruction of retail stores, of malls. And what that is leading to now is that there is a shortage of food in some areas, because the places where people would buy food are now closed and nonoperational.

And there is a broader concern that those were places that were employing people. As I’ve said, South Africa’s unemployment rate is incredibly high. And retail was really the area where most people were finding employment. And so, those local employers in these different areas, many of them will never really be able to open, and so there will be many people who have lost their employment in different township areas around South Africa and in areas like Soweto, where, until the late 1990s, there wasn’t really much infrastructure for people to be able to live and work and buy what they need within the township of Soweto, even though it has a population of around 2 million people.

And so, all of that infrastructure that has been developed over the past 15 to 20 years, much of it has been destroyed and may not be rebuilt. And so, the people that are really going to feel the brunt of this in — actually, already in the short term, but certainly, I think, in the medium to long term, are the poorest South Africans, who were already suffering so much under the economic circumstances of the country.

And I do think that we need to distinguish between — and I’m self-correcting here — that although they — the people who were engaging in the food riots and taking the food and other goods from shops are not necessarily the people who were burning the infrastructure. And it seems, as more information becomes available, as more intelligence comes out, that there were two different dynamics in this unrest. There is the — and, I would say, legitimate cause of people who are hungry and who are economically marginalized. But it seems then the other destruction, the burning, seems to have been done by people with a greater political purpose.

And the government really does not seem to have many solutions for how to deal with the underlying causes of what we have seen, because I really believe that the imprisonment of former President Zuma last week, and all the disgruntlement around it, would not have turned into the kind of conflagration that we’ve seen in the past few days if people were more economically secure. And the government, instead of reintroducing the assistance to people that was discontinued in March, has decided instead to deploy the Army. As you say, more soldiers are being deployed than ever since 1994.

And they’ve said that the cost doesn’t matter. The minister of defense has basically been given a blank check by the National Treasury to deploy soldiers around the country. And this, to me, seems like a wrongheaded way to deal with this. If money really is not a problem, then that money should be used to provide greater support to the people, economic support and financial support to the people who need it, because, as you say, we’re facing these two — you know, caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, COVID-19 and the Delta variant, which is spreading rapidly throughout the country and has caused a significant increase in deaths, especially deaths of younger people, so people below the ages of 45 are dying at far greater rate with this new variant. But, of course, the measures that have been put in place to limit the spread of the Delta variant have also undermined people’s ability to engage economically and to make money for their families.

And so, the government has been looking at this very shortsightedly as a security problem and a security threat, where I think that a more sustainable solution would be found if the government looked more holistically at all the causes of this and, in the immediate term, as an immediate solution, reintroduced some kind of financial relief to all South Africans who need it, and, I think that in the longer term, really considers looking at some kind of universal basic income, because in a situation where half your population is unemployed, there are no real other options about how to sustain people and to keep a socially healthy and productive society.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sithembile, finally, we just have a minute. You’ve pointed out that in fact one of the grievances, driving grievances, of these protests is the fact that life for most Black South Africans has remained more or less unchanged since the days of apartheid and that this has been compounded by policies of the ANC government. Could you just talk about that briefly?

SITHEMBILE MBETE: Yes. So, you know, South Africa’s famed peaceful transition, I think that it was successful to some degree on the political front and in ending the immediate conflict that came with apartheid, but it really did nothing to change the underlying economic structure. And the reality is that the economy, from 1948, and actually from before then, was structured to exclude Black people. It was an economy that was structured so that Black South Africans would be a kind of permanent underclass servicing the economy and the needs of white South Africans, who would own assets, including land, etc.

And what has happened since 1994 is that while a few Black South Africans — I mean, myself included — have been able to get education and break into the middle and upper classes, the vast majority of Black South Africans remain excluded from the economy and unable to improve their conditions. And until we change the fundamental structure of our economy, I think we will continue to face the risk of this kind of unrest in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you so much for being with us. And I just want to add, in looking at South Africa, which has been leading the challenge to get vaccines throughout the poorest areas of the world, less than 3% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Compare that to almost 70% of people in the United States. Sithembile Mbete, I want to thank you so much for being with us, senior lecturer in political sciences at the University of Pretoria in Johannesburg.

Next up, as we talk about hunger in South Africa, we’re going to go global and look at how the pandemic has fueled a massive increase in the number of people going hungry around the world. Stay with us.

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